Design Isn't Visual

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among average designers that keeps them just that – average. The trend has been to focus design time on everything visual, to make the website as pretty, cool or as visually appealing as possible.

While it’s certainly important for a website to be visually appealing, real design isn’t really visual – it’s communicative. Real design tells a story and focuses on subconscious cues from the visitor.

When average designers get a new design project, what sort of questions do they ask the client?

  • Can you give me 5 sites that have a design you like?
  • What colors are you going for?
  • What sort of design elements do you like?

As you can see, these questions all deal with one thing – visuals. When I was in design school, the school focused on old-school print design principles. We studied for weeks the way the best designers approached their projects, and almost none of them had to do with what the client wanted it to look like.

Instead, these designers focused on the target audience and who they were.

  • What did certain colors mean to this audience and how would it affect the view of the company?
  • How old is this audience and what did they like? What does the negative space of the piece say and how does the content flow?
  • How should the audience feel?
  • What message is the company trying to convey?

As you can see, all of these do affect the visual design itself, but none of them are about the actual visuals. They’re about the way the piece communicates with the audience.

I think that thanks to the ease of the Internet and tools like Photoshop, there’s been a huge influx of both rookie designers with no training and clients with little to no budgets. This makes the brainstorming process tougher and in some cases, non-existent.

Good designers don’t start with design. They go through a full process of several steps that include research before they even touch a computer. The full design process should look like:

  • Research of company
  • Research of target audience
  • Brainstorming/free-flowing exercises
  • Sketches
  • First comps
  • Second comps, etc

How often do you see today’s web designers do anything but the comps? How much do you think their design suffers because of it?

When Steve Jobs left Apple and went on to found NeXt, he hired one of the best logo designers ever – Paul Rand. Here’s what Job’s said about Rand:

“I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, “No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you. You’re the client. But you pay me.” And there was a clarity about the relationship that was refreshing.”

While we probably aren’t famous enough to respond as bluntly as Rand did, we can learn an important lesson from him. Clients come to us for our expertise, so why do we rely on them or allow them to push us in the direction the design should go?

Your thoughts

Have you noticed a decline in the quality of design? Do you think today’s design is based too much on the visual aspect?

image by Kapungo